Julian Whitaker, MD
Elizabeth began suffering bouts of anxiety in her 20s. They’d hit her at random times but were particularly intense at night. She’d lie in bed, short of breath, with her heart beating so hard and erratically that she thought she was having a heart attack. Numerous times it was so bad that she even considered going to the emergency room.
When Elizabeth told her doctor about it, she was given prescriptions for Xanax (an anti-anxiety drug we’ll look at in detail below) and Paxil, an antidepressant. For years she was on this drug regimen, yet she continued to feel nervousness, worry, and occasional outright panic. One day at work, she was so overwhelmed that she shut the door to her office and collapsed in a heap on the floor.
When a coworker found her, Elizabeth tearfully told the woman about her chronic anxiety. Ironically, her colleague suffered similarly and just happened to have a supplement with her that she’d learned about in my newsletter. It was GABA, an amino acid we’ve been using at the clinic for years to treat anxiety.
The results were immediate and astounding. GABA stopped Elizabeth’s panic attack in its tracks, took the edge off her anxiety, and left her feeling calm and relaxed.
GABA to the Rescue
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is more than an amino acid. It is also one of the central nervous system’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitters, meaning it stimulates receptors that inhibit, or calm down, activity in the brain. It works, in a sense, in opposition to the excitatory neurotransmitters that rev the brain up. Obviously these two types need to be in balance, and taking supplemental GABA when you’re restless, anxious, or irritable helps restore necessary equilibrium.
Elizabeth isn’t the only one who has benefited from GABA for smoothing out generalized anxiety, treating acute anxiety or panic attacks, and getting off anti-anxiety drugs. One of my patients, Claudia, who has a longstanding fear of flying, used to take Xanax before flights. Now she takes GABA 30 minutes prior to takeoff and is able to travel anxiety-free. She also takes it when she can’t sleep at night, and it helps “turn off” her brain. Another patient of mine, Susan, uses GABA when she feels overwhelmed, and she swears her anxiety and racing heartbeat disappear within minutes.
What Not to Do for Anxiety
Because supplemental GABA is safe, nontoxic, and non-habit forming—in addition to being effective—it should be a frontline defense in the battle against anxiety. But if you see most doctors for anxiety, you’ll likely leave with a prescription rather than a recommendation for this inexpensive supplement.
The most popular class of meds for treating anxiety is benzodiazepines, which include Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. They too target GABA receptor sites, but the similarities between the supplement and the drugs end there. Benzodiazepines also depress the central nervous system and have powerful sedative, hypnotic, and relaxant effects. These drugs cause sleep disturbances, cognitive problems, and gait impairment. They dramatically increase the risk of falls—a study conducted a few years ago linked at least 10,000 hip fractures per year to these drugs. They also impair driving ability and are an underlying cause of thousands of automobile accidents annually.
Benzodiazepines are especially risky for older people, who are more sensitive to their effects and have a harder time eliminating them from the bloodstream. This age group is also more prone to adverse side effects, which are all too often chalked up to aging. Furthermore, benzodiazepines are highly addictive. Even though they’re meant for short-term or occasional use, many people end up taking them for years on end. And let me tell you, once you’re dependent, getting off these drugs is no picnic.
Anxiety is Not a Disease
The thing that bothers me most about benzodiazepines—and a host of other drugs, for that matter—is that they are often inappropriately prescribed. According to a 2007 paper from Columbia University, up to 20 percent of older Americans take these drugs on a regular basis, despite their well-documented toxicity.
Folks, anxiety is not a disease. We all experience some degree of uneasiness, apprehension, worry, fear, or even terror when we feel unsafe or threatened, or when we find ourselves in unnerving situations such as giving a presentation or taking an exam. It’s normal to feel anxious in these circumstances. This “fight-or-flight” response is a survival mechanism that alerts your body to potential threats and gets you ready for action.
Of course, most of the stressors we encounter in our daily lives require neither fight nor flight, but the body prepares you for it just the same. Anxiety may arise from thoughts of a loved one who is having problems, bills that need to be paid, or disturbing news. But whether the stressor is external or internal, real or imagined, the physiological response is the same.
We can all tolerate a little stress—it makes us more alert and gives us an edge in certain situations. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is emotionally and physically debilitating. Nobody should have to live in a state of constant fear and worry, or suffer through panic attacks or anxiety-driven insomnia, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal problems, and heart palpitations. But drugs are not the answer.
Here are some other recommendations in addition to GABA for dealing with anxiety.
Go on a “Diet” and Take a Hike
Exercise is a great way to both stave off anxiety and calm down an acute episode. If your body is already in the fight-or-flight mode, you might as well take flight! Going for a walk or jog brings down levels of stress hormones, boosts production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, and releases muscle tension. It’s also a distraction that shifts your focus away from whatever is making you anxious.
I also recommend that you put yourself on a strict “media diet.” Just take a look at these recent headlines: “Violent Crime in Cities Shows Sharp Surge, Reversing Trend.” “Deadliest Bomb in Iraq War Kills 152.” “NASA Lacks Funds to Find Killer Asteroids.” “Global Warming Study: Rising Sea Levels a Threat to Major Cities.” “Food Allergies: One Bite Can Be Deadly.” “Recession Risk Rising.” Scary news such as this bombards us every day. No wonder so many of us are anxious!
For a period of one month, quit watching the news, reading the paper, looking at online news sources, and listening to the radio. Think you’ll be missing out? You will—on anxiety-provoking violence, gore, and nonsense.
Other Safe Solutions
There are a number of other safe and effective supplements for easing anxiety besides GABA. L-theanine, an amino acid abundant in green tea, raises your body’s GABA levels and promotes calming alpha-wave activity in the brain. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), also an amino acid supplement, helps boost levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood and sleep.
Kava (Piper methysticum), an herb used for thousands of years in the South Pacific islands, is renowned for its ability to cause profound relaxation and an overall sense of well-being. Valerian, another anxiety-reducing herb, is especially useful when taken at bedtime because it also induces sleep.
I want to close with Dilantin (phenytoin). Rarely do I recommend prescription drugs, but Dilantin is an exception. Used for decades as an anti-seizure drug, low-dose Dilantin has an amazing ability to quiet the brain and eliminate symptoms of anxiety. It works by evening out the bioelectrical activity in the brain and normalizing neuronal activity. This helps tone down anxiety, anger, and other negative emotional states.
Whether you experience occasional anxiety or chronic worry, use these solutions to calm your mind and create the sense of tranquility that you deserve.
- If you suffer from anxiety, I suggest that you first try GABA. For quick relief during an acute episode, open a capsule and stir it into water. For chronic anxiety, take 750 mg one to three times a day as needed.
- If GABA doesn’t do it for you, try the other anxiety-relievers discussed above, one at a time, and see what works best for you. All of these supplements are available in health food stores, online, or by calling (800) 810-6655. Take as directed.
- Dilantin is available by prescription only. For more information read The Story of a Remarkable Medicine by Jack Dreyfus, available online at remarkablemedicine.com.
- If you’d like to become a patient at the Whitaker Wellness Institute and receive treatment for anxiety, contact a Patient Services Representative at (866) 944-8253 or click here.
- Cook J, et al. Physicians’ perspectives on prescribing benzodiazepines for older adults: a qualitative study. J Gen Intern Med. 2007 March; 22(3):303–307.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2007. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.